The Specter of Humanity: Sally Mann Photographs the South

maria j. bastos-stanek

Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985(fig. 1) Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Consider the precarious uncertainties of childhood life. Many children grow up in the security of their parent’s loving embrace, vigilance, and care. But even among the most ideal family relationships, the primal struggle between a child who desires autonomy and a parent who desires to keep their children safe play out in everyday life. The emotional difficulties of growing up and the unique family relationships that inform them is one of the themes that American photographer Sally Mann explores in her most recent exhibition, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the exhibition presents the work of her over forty-year career. Mann combines experimental techniques with challenging subjects to create photographs which are deeply in tune with the history of photography and challenge the limits of spectatorship.

Those visiting A Thousand Crossings expecting to see the works that made her famous—images of her childrenwill encounter them in the first few rooms of the large exhibition. Only by advancing through the show will viewers discover Mann’s own transformation, one marked by her growing awareness of the racial divisions in the South. Curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel divide the exhibition into three sections: photographs of Mann’s children in their remote home in Virginia, landscapes that capture the Southern Gothic obsession with tradition and history, and photographs that mine Mann’s personal history and identity to explore the public complexity of race. Mann allows her audience access into her own process of introspection. In doing so, she asks her audience to consider the complex factors that inform how we see the world.

Mann has received both praise and criticism for her series Immediate Family, produced between 1984 and 1991. In the series, Mann’s photographs her three small children at their family farm in rural Virginia—a picturesque setting along a river in the Shenandoah Valley. Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia play, sleep, and swim at their leisure, often nude. While the works depict with sometimes unsettling candor the innocence of childhood, anyone who has participated in family life is likely to be familiar with the scenes in Immediate Family. Indeed, it is this feeling of familiarity—of the universal qualities of childhood—and Mann’s unseen presence from behind the camera which lend to the disarming honesty of the series, even when many of the photographs are carefully composed. No child is ever truly independent, or is rarely left alone. Mann acts as a an unseen presence among her children. She infuses what may otherwise be straightforward photography with a subjective framework rifled with emotional intent.

2001.199_ph_web-1(fig. 2) Sally Mann, Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Mann’s presence from behind the camera shapes how her subjects react to being photographed. In Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, (fig. 2) two young boys seem to suspend their play in order to accommodate Mann and her camera. Leaning against a tree with his arm stretched high above, Emmett seems to wait confrontationally like a child who is vigorously at home in his surroundings. The other boy identified only by skin color looks on at Mann hesitantly. With his hand covering his mouth, he seems uncomfortable posing in front of a camera (despite a bicep tattoo that suggests otherwise), while Emmett boldly asserts himself despite the intrusion of his mother’s advances. Even in photographs that convey a deeper sense of anxiety or melancholy about growing up, such as in Jessie Bites, 1985, (fig. 1), Mann’s presence is never far away.

Once her children reached adolescence, Mann turned her attention to issues of identity and place. In Lexington, Virginia, the site of the memorial of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the pastoral landscapes of her own childhood harbor half-hidden histories of the Antebellum South. In the series, Battlefields, Mann utilizes vintage cameras with damaged lenses to capture the locations of Civil War battles in an antiquated style. Using a soft-focus or out-of-focus rendering of otherwise innocuous woodland territories, Mann imitates the pictorialist style of the nineteenth-century. The resulting photographs do not so much render the past as they do render Mann’s own personal connection and exploration of that past.

Sally Mann, Battlefields, 2003(fig. 3) Sally Mann, Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

In her Battlefields series, Mann returns to an early theme in the history of American photography. One of the first wars to be photographed in the United States was the Civil War.[1] Photographers of the nineteenth-century were prohibited from depicting battle scenes by the laborious process and long exposure time it took to produce collodion-on-wet negatives. Instead, they avoided the chaos of a dangerous battlefield and created carefully staged images of camp scenes, empty battlefields, and even dead soldiers.

Like the war photographers, Mann utilizes the nineteenth-century equipment. In Battlefields: Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003 (fig. 3), Mann intentionally photographs the landscape with flawed lenses that create an extra layer of marks, scratches, and blurry corners. These imperfections lend the photograph an aura of antiquity. Mann turns back the clock at Mechanicsville, Virginia to the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. Although we can’t see any uniformed soldiers outfitted with rifles and bayonets, the white marks that dot the landscape fly by like whizzing bullets across the length of the print. The chaos of battle may be taking place not far beyond the edges of the photograph—and Mann places the viewer in the center of the action. The chaos of the battlefield unsettles an otherwise undisturbed, if not eerie, land. In doing so, Mann attempts to unearth the suppressed histories of the Antebellum South.

Mann attempts to understand the racial trauma embedded in the land that many Southerners, and indeed, the rest of America, may try to forget. In Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie), 1998, (fig. 4), Mann photographed the Tallahatchie River, the site of a Civil Rights-era hate crime. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi by a group of white men after being accused of flirting with a married white woman. His attackers were acquitted, sold their confession to Look Magazine, and the woman who originated the claims later confessed to fabricating crucial details about the event. Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son to expose the world to the epidemic of lynching in the South and the culture of racism that fueled it.

Sally Mann, Deep South, 1998(fig. 4) Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Bridge of Tallahatchie), 1998, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

The murder of Emmett Till presents a doubly difficult event to photograph because his death has already been politicized through a visual narrative. Till’s mother allowed his body to be photographed and those images to be distributed among black-run newspapers and magazines to bear witness to the racial violence that killed her son. To depict the body of Emmett Till would likely distort and misinterpret the photograph’s original intent. Those who have previously done so have been met with harsh criticism.

In Mann’s landscape of the Tallahatchie, the viewer will find no body. Mann engages with the hate crime through her personal connection to the land. She infuses the Tallahatchie landscape with a narrative, one that cannot be seen as evidence on the land itself—but one in which every Southerner knows and may feel a personal relationship to. The enveloping darkness around the edges of the photograph seem to slowly encroach across the breadth of the river, engulfing every tree, branch, and leaf in the stillness of contemplation. The raindrops that dot the surface of the water highlight the loneliness of the encounter. As Mann takes to the camera in an attempt to understand an event that shaped her experience of living as a white woman in the South, she does so on a solitary journey.

A Thousand Crossings succeeds at immersing the audience into Mann’s world. We as an audience bear witness to her introspection, and in turn feel compelled to turn inwards and examine our own relationship to race, history, and the power of the land we call home. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through September 23, 2018, and will be traveling to several other venues across the U.S. and Europe throughout the next year.


[1] Department of Photographs. “Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004).

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